Psychobiomics (Part 1): A Little About the Immune System–Brain Connection

I recently did a couple of webinars on the biome for practitioners down in Australia.  In preparing my slides, I came across some amazing (and terrifying) statistics.  According to the CDC in the US, 7.6% of Americans aged 12 and over have had moderate to severe depression in the past 2 weeks.  In Australia, a million people a year (in a population of 23 million – so about 4%) suffer from depression.  The numbers are staggering.  And that is just depression!  What about anxiety disorders:  generalized anxiety disorder, PTSD, panic attacks, OCD (which is a subset of anxiety disorders), bipolar disorder, autism, ADHD, etc.?

Referring back yet again to Sid Baker’s spider web analogy – that everything in the body is interconnected – it is amazing how much information has been discovered in the last couple of years about the immune-CNS-gut connection.  In 2015 an important article was published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine which, for the first time ever, showed that the central nervous system is physically tied in directly to the immune system via a previously unknown system of lymph vessels.[i]

Scientific America had a great summary article of this revolutionary finding:

“Perhaps the most commonly cited division between body and brain concerns the immune system. When exposed to foreign bacteria, viruses, tumors, and transplant tissue, the body stirs up a torrent of immune activity: white blood cells devour invading pathogens and burst compromised cells; antibodies tag outsiders for destruction. Except, that is, in the brain. Thought to be too vulnerable to host an onslaught of angry defensive cells, the brain was assumed to be protected from this immune cascade. However research published this month reported a previously unknown line of communication between our brains and immune systems, adding to a fast-growing body of research suggesting that the brain and body are more connected than previously thought.” [ii]

In a way though it’s strange that anyone would have ever thought the immune system was completely separate from the brain.  Medicine has long recognized “sickness behavior,” for example: when an organism is sick, and inflammatory cytokines are released, the organism conserves energy to use it in the battle against the disease – thus appearing lethargic and enervated.  Back in 2013, I remember reading this blog post from Harvard  Health Publications, “Infection, Autoimmune Disease Linked to Depression,”[iii] which cited an amazing statistic based upon a study of the entire Danish population from 1945 to 1995:  “People who had been treated for a severe infection were 62% more likely to have developed a mood disorder than those who never had one. An autoimmune disease increased the risk by 45%.”

And of course, the connection is bidirectional.  How many of us have gotten sick after a period of extreme psychic stress?  Shingles is a perfect example:  the herpes virus that causes shingles lives in the nerves, but is generally kept dormant by our immune systems.  Stress us out and suddenly, the virus wins out over our suppressed immune system.

So, what does all this have to do with the gut biome?  70% or more of our immune system is in our digestive system as most germs enter through our nose and mouth.  And our body’s co-inhabitants are a crucial part of normal immunity…and also, talk directly to our brains.  Completely coincidently, just before finishing this post, I read about the publication of a new article called “Linking the Human Gut Microbiome to Inflammatory Cytokine Production Capacity.”[iv]  I’ll write more on this, the connection of the gut biome to brain development and health, and other recent research in the near future.

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[i] Aleksanteri Aspelund, Salli Antila, Steven Proulx, Tine Karlsen, Sinem Karaman, Michael Detmar, Helge Wiig and Kari Alitalo. A dural lymphatic vascular system that drains brain interstitial fluid and macromolecules. The Journal of Experimental Medicine, June 2015 DOI: 10.1084/jem.20142290

[ii] from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/important-link-between-the-brain-and-immune-system-found/

[iii] from:  http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/infection-autoimmune-disease-linked-to-depression-201306176397

[iv] Schirmer, Melanie et al.Linking the Human Gut Microbiome to Inflammatory Cytokine Production Capacity. Cell , Volume 167 , Issue 4 , 1125 – 1136.e8

 

What’s in a Name?

Every morning I read through all the latest news on the biome, both micro and macro.  I am excited about the onslaught of new research looking at the gut-brain connection.  As I mentioned in my previous post, this concept was the basis of my very first lesson on chronic illness.  (In my case, my son’s autism was the focus.)  On the other hand, I always feel a deep sense of frustration:  if I was learning about this stuff 20 years ago, why is it only now that the medical establishment is REALLY paying attention?

It was just this morning that I read for the first time that the connection between the gut biome and mental health is finally so well established that scientists have given it a name:  Psychobiotics.

“Now that we know that gut bacteria can speak to the brain—in ways that affect our mood, our appetite, and even our circadian rhythms—the next challenge for scientists is to control this communication. The science of psychobiotics, reviewed October 25 in Trends in Neurosciences, explores emerging strategies for planting brain-altering bacteria in the gut to provide mental benefits and the challenges ahead in understanding how such products could work for humans.”1

 NOW that we know that gut bacteria can speak to the brain?!  Grrrr.  I was told that 2 decades ago, and it wasn’t new news then!   Yes, yes, I know:  science can only progress so fast.  First and foremost, it’s a business – and whatever makes the most money will get the most money, in terms of funding. Secondly though, it’s also true that the human body is so unbelievably complex that it boggles the mind.  Back to Sid Baker’s spider web analogy:  everything in the body affects everything else.  Heaven knows how many processes are occurring through the body and cells at one time, and if one tiny thing goes askew, the entire organism is tipped into imbalance – like dominoes falling. Rationally speaking, I know that inch by inch, scientific knowledge progresses.

Where does that leave us though, who are in the trenches right now, battling incredible suffering in ourselves and/or our children? “If it can’t hurt and it could help, do it,” I’ve told myself for the last 20 years.  And if there’s any doubt about the “hurt” part, put the potential treatment on the risk/reward scale and see how things fall.

About 15 years ago or so, I was at an autism medical conference, and was privileged to see a talk about the gut-brain connection given by Dr. Martha Herbert.  Dr. Herbert is an eminent neurologist at Harvard/Mass General, and has been a huge proponent of, as she says, “the brain being downstream from the gut.”  As she concluded her talk, she acknowledged that we are in the earliest stages of understanding this connection but felt that even then, the evidence was strong enough to support families taking measures to improve the health of the gut biome to treat their children’s autistic symptoms.  “When faced with prolonged scientific uncertainty,” she said, “Use your best judgement.”  I quickly wrote down her exact words ensuring I would never forget them.  Right there, she summed up my philosophy far more eloquently than I ever could.  I’ve lived by that mantra from the day my son was first diagnosed.

But back to where science is today.  Over time, I am looking forward to sharing with you whatever new information comes down the pipeline.  I will also review great stuff that has appeared of the last few years.  No matter who you are, whether or not you are suffering from an illness or are in perfect health and want to stay that way, trying to improve the health of the biome can’t hurt and could help.

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1.http://medicalxpress.com/news/2016-10-current-state-psychobiotics.html

Welcome to My World!

Strange when you can look back and realize that a single moment in time was a turning point in your life. I have always loved that kind of hindsight, figuring out those exact moments that changed everything.

One was March 22, 1996, the day my 2 year old son, Alex, was diagnosed with autism.  My entire world shifted on its axis.  Everything I had ever done or thought, wanted or needed, liked or hated…everything became irrelevant.  What mattered was helping my sick baby.  (And Alex was and is SICK:  idiopathic immune deficiency, seizures, and a history of inflammatory bowel disease.)

What I rapidly came to understand is that the system-model of the human body that is taught in your average 9th grade biology class (the circulatory system, the immune system, the central nervous system, etc.) is nonsense.  My first teacher was Dr. Sidney Baker, one of the founders of the functional medicine movement that thankfully continues to gain traction around the world, who I first met on March 8, 1997 (at 2:00 pm EST, to be precise), just after Alex’s 3rd birthday.  Another major turning point.

Sid pointed to the fake spider web he had hanging in the corner of his office and explained to me that the human body is all one thing:  like that spider web, everything is intertwined…and  no part of the body works in isolation.  Sid went on to explain that autism is a set of symptoms that results from alterations in the immune system and in the biome of the gut…

The what of the gut?

The biome:  all the living organisms in an ecosystem.  And the human body is an ecosystem, teeming with life.  Like all ecosystems, we have our non-living matter (for example, water) and living matter, like our own cells and the trillions of co-inhabitants that live in and on us.

As time passed and I learned more, I truly came to understand what Sid meant.  More and more research began to demonstrate alterations in normal gut flora being suspect in the origin of autism…and other chronic illnesses ranging from obesity to celiac disease to depression.  Then, in 1999, I read an article in the NY Times (“In Pursuit of Autoimmune Worm Cure,” by Andy Newman) which explained the work of Dr. Joel Weinstock who used helminths – the native animal life inhabiting the guts of all mammals on this planet, except those of us in the industrialized world – to treat inflammatory bowel disease.  Dr. Weinstock hypothesized that by adding back our missing macrobiome, he could stimulate the immune system in such a way as to reduce autoimmunity and inflammation.  Sure enough, 6 of the 7 individuals in the study went into remission and the 7th also improved dramatically.

The article rocked my world.

It was at that moment, reading that article, that what had been a mere interest in the human biome became an obsession.

In 2013 I co-founded Biome Restoration Ltd., a UK company that provides those helminths (more on this in future posts).  I turned my hobby into my profession: it’s the old “love what you do and you’ll never do a day’s work” adage come to life.  Yes, as my big brother mutters when introducing me, “My sister sells worms.”

So, here I am, so many years later, still daily reading whatever I can find (which is now an incredible amount) on the wonderful and amazing biome and its relationship to health.  Trendsetter that I am, it seems like pretty much everyone else in the world has finally figured out that this is where it’s all happening – deep down in our digestive systems, where the majority of our old friends live.

Our biome is what’s trending.